In a rare acknowledgment of corporate wrongdoing, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) recently pled guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter arising out of its failure to maintain a transmission line that sparked the devastating Camp Fire in 2018. In the aftermath of the public backlash against PG&E, and faced with increasingly severe wildfires in the state, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), hosted workshops in August of this year to seek the public’s input on the safety practices of the state’s three largest investor-owned electric utilities (IOUs), including PG&E, to mitigate California’s evermore devastating wildfires. Implementation of the workshop results, titled the 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan, has been tasked to the CPUC’s newly created Wildfire Safety Division. Among the most impactful action items of the Plan will be (1) to standardize data collection across utilities, while (2) increasing local outreach efforts to better direct the public during such a dangerous time (D.20-05-051).
Given that 15 of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California’s history have occurred since the year 2000, engagement of utilities and the public through these workshop was both laudable and long overdue. However, the Division’s focus on data collection and local outreach to enhance preparation for an exacerbated fire season fails to address the root cause of the mess we are in: climate change. As a warming climate produces longer and hotter summer dry seasons and more frequent droughts, wildfires during California’s fire season will become more severe and destructive.
Even though the Wildfire Mitigation Plan will provide a more structured response to exacerbated wildfire risks, it will be insufficient to prevent future fires. Given that the Camp Fire caused $8.5 billion of damage, developing action items on preventative measures in addition to reactive processes would be time and effort well spent.
As a concerned citizen within PG&E service territory, I will continue to be an advocate for the CPUC to be involved in one of the best preventative measures currently undertaken by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CAL FIRE): controlled burns. This fire management method prevents serious wildfires by burning in a controlled manner the excess brush and foliage that otherwise would otherwise serve as fuel for more serious uncontrolled fires. This method was in fact widely used in pre-historic California and was largely successful up until the 1980s. However, budget cuts and failure by Congress to renew the requirements allowed the lapse of this fire control method. Interestingly, controlled burn strategies to maintain forest health continue to be lobbied for at the national level, but systematic implementation continues to remain elusive. However, as the regulatory body overseeing the safety of utility operations, it is well within the CPUC’s authority to require electric utilities to work more closely with CAL FIRE to get us back on track to a time before California became known as the wildfire state.
By coincidence, we just discussed protection of the stratospheric ozone layers in my environmental law course this week when I saw the obituary for Dr. Mario Molina yesterday, a Mexican-American scientist. His research on damage to the ozone layer by CFCs and other ozone depleting chemicals was awarded a Nobel Prize and eventually prompted the negotiation of the Ozone Treaties (Vienna Convention and Montreal Protocol). These agreements have become among the most successful international environmental treaties to date and continue to serve as models for modern environmental treaty-making. In his later days, he used his role to speak out on these broader environmental policy issues, including in the context of climate change. What a loss.
See the last piece (“Complainant Rights and Civil Rights Act Title VI”) in this collection of opinion pieces in the Environmental Forum’s (Nov./Dec. 2020) Debate “Advancing Racial Justice Means Advancing Environmental Justice” for my contribution.
The ABA Section on Environment, Energy, and Resources has some terrific writing prize opportunities for law students, well designed for submission of course papers. Many of them have a 20 page length limit on submissions. All of them have a submission deadline of May 31, 2021, with a $1000 cash prize for the top paper. For additional requirements and details, see the links.
A terrific fellowship opportunity for qualified law students. One of my students was a recipient recently and had a great experience. The program provides a summer $6500 stipend and helps place students in a valuable environmental law summer internship.
Carl Yirka, a long-time Vermont Law School professor and friend, passed away over the weekend, after a long battle with cancer. Carl was a wonderful human being, a great friend and colleague during my time at VLS, and a witty travel companion extraordinaire. In addition to the time I spent with him on matters related to the VLS China program, one of my fondest memories with him dates back to a 1999 trip to Petrozavodsk, Russia. It was right around the summer solstice, and we were there for a short environmental law teaching stint. We arrived into St. Petersburg on a flight from the US. After a full day exploring St. Petersburg, the evening/night-time van ride to Petrozavodsk was one of the most memorable (but also bizarre) trips that I have ever experienced. Since it was the summer solstice and since St. Petersburg is located at a relatively high northern latitude (approximately the same as Anchorage, Alaska), daylight lasted almost 24 hours. Driving during these “White Nights” basically meant traveling through a rural landscape where people were doing gardening, recreation, and other activities at a time when everyone would ordinarily be asleep. For the entire 4-5 hour drive there, the driver kept telling us that we were about to arrive even though it would be hours longer. The road seemed to go on forever, and the sun kept hovering around the horizon but never set. It was an experience that could have come straight from a Twilight Zone episode. And to cap it all off, when we arrived, we had a full Russian dinner with our hosts at around midnight.
“. . . the University of Miami School of Law is seeking a dynamic and experienced lawyer-educator to direct and teach its Environmental Justice Clinic for the 2020-21 school year. The Interim Director will have the opportunity to join the vibrant and supportive clinical community at Miami Law for a year while Miami Law embarks on the formal process to bring in a permanent Director; the Interim Director may apply to the permanent position once it is open.
The Environmental Justice Clinic (EJC) advocates for and seeks to empower low-and moderate-income communities who disproportionately bear the environmental, economic, and health burdens of the development, implementation, and enforcement of the law. Employing a community lawyering approach, the Clinic seeks systemic change for our clients through advocacy, public policy resources, rights education, and transactional assistance. The Clinic’s work sits at the intersection of civil rights, environmental, poverty, and public health law, tackling issues in South Florida including climate change, displacement, contamination, environmental health, municipal equity, and more. Increasingly, the Clinic views its work through the lens of climate change, one of the most significant social justice issues of our time, and which will be felt most acutely by the poor and marginalized.
The position is a full-time, one-year non-tenure track faculty position. The full job description is attached. Applications will be considered on a rolling basis until the position is filled, however applicants are strongly encouraged to apply for this position before April 30, 2020.”